Set in Melbourne in 1885, this novel centres on Maude Hanford, “short, not quite pretty” and seeming to be as mousy as her hair. Maude is married to Walker J. Hanford, a banker twenty years her senior. The marriage is far from happy and Hanford is something of a brute. Her husband claims to be a gentleman but James Newling, whose business Hanford solicits, thinks otherwise. Maude’s attraction to James Newling complicates matters, as does her personal wealth, acquired from her family’s successful building firm. James also doubts Hanford’s claims to gentility and does some discreet probing. When Maude’s involvement with Newling becomes clear to Hanford, he plans to ensure that he keeps custody of their child and of Maude’s wealth. Subplots emerge, centring on the murder of a man on the goldfields and the subsequent investigation by journalist Adam Bailey. As the novel reaches its climax, Hanford’s and Maude’s plans go awry with the collapse of Hanford’s bank—a rather familiar tale in these times (plus ça change!). This leads to a galloping finish as the tale unravels.
The book draws on several historical themes, not least of which is the tension between the ‘well born’ and the ‘self-made’ in colonial Melbourne, particularly when there were some very wealthy and prominent citizens who preferred their convict or shady pasts to remain hidden. Although the narrative gathers pace well into the book, the early chapters are rather plodding and could do with less telling and more showing via dialogue. There is far too much self-conscious scene-setting at the start that could have been more happily woven through the early pages.
If you can overlook the laughably bad 1970s-style dust jacket, you may enjoy the distinctive storyline and its well-researched background.